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Archive for July, 2010

I’m looking forward to seeing the recently released documentary on Jean-Michel Basquiat. Its subtitle is The Radiant Child, a phrase that conjures the beautiful and potentially subversive imagery of Basquiat, Keith Haring, and other artists. Since it will probably be some time before I can view the film (as the father of three-year-old twins I don’t get out much) I’ve placated myself for the time being with a re-reading of Rene Ricard’s 1981 ARTFORUM essay by the same title. It was Ricard who, in that venue and others, first contemplated the poetic notion of the radiant child, along with particular ideas about graffiti and street-born art.

Meanwhile, my treading-water approach to cultural appreciation has me thrashing around another pseudointellectual whirlpool. I find myself wondering what makes a person deem another person either creative or non-creative. This has bothered me ever since I tried to absorb Richard Florida’s books on the “creative class,” but now I’m savoring the afterthoughts of another, far more interesting work—one that strikes me as both inspired and unwittingly cynical.

Cynicism is a tough knot. It seems there are various ways to be cynical and I find it hard to untangle them, define them. Your version of cynicism might differ from mine. The same goes for practicality and concreteness, two overriding concerns in Matthew Crawford’s 2009 book Shop Class as Soulcraft. Despite the importance of his core messages—that we have lost sight of the value of craftsmanship and that our educational system is a fast track to passionless, meaningless employment—I worry that the messenger may suffer from his own species of narrow-mindedness. In some cases, Crawford’s evident desire to purge our society of abstractions comes across as reactionary and provincial.

Take, for example, his dismissal of “a view that is familiar to most of us from kindergarten: creativity is a mysterious capacity that lies in each of us and merely needs to be ‘unleashed’ (think finger painting).”

Equating finger painting with false creativity is, at best, debatable. But Crawford appears content with a blunt assertion, quickly moving on to his own theory: “The truth, of course, is that creativity is a by-product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice. It seems to be built up through submission (think a musician practicing scales, or Einstein learning tensory algebra). Identifying creativity with freedom harmonizes quite well with the culture of new capitalism, in which the imperative of flexibility precludes dwelling in any task long enough to develop real competence. Such competence is the condition not only for geniune creativity but for economic independence such as the tradesman enjoys.”

Since finishing Shop Class a few weeks ago (yes, I’m behind on my reading) I have struggled with its mixture of social portent and cultural squeamishness. How does veering away from “abstract” work (or what an ambiguity-averse college friend of mine labelled “fuzzy studies”) affect the artist? How would it impact traditional scholarship? How would it shape the kid who actually wants to sit at a desk—reading, writing, thinking up stories, lost in ideas—instead of following Crawford’s earthy prescriptions for learning? It’s not that Crawford completely omits these questions, but he answers them in ways that sometimes seem too easy. He makes awkward pronouncements about what constitutes “good art.” And he puts forward the notion of the “spirited man,” a model of proactive, hands-on citizenship who rankles at frivolous amenities like automatic faucets and other emasculating inflences in the social fabric. The origins of this rugged individual—who he was before he became a spirited man—don’t seem to interest Crawford much. I mean to ask the question literally. Who was the spirited man as a boy?

We can’t tackle this by listing the classes he was forced to take in junior high, or by studying the hallmarks of boyishness he did or didn’t exhibit, or by asking if he was prevented from exhibiting them by overzealous sensitivity counselors. “Who he was” refers to the boy’s inner life, his innate inventiveness. The truly spirited man stays in touch with that.

Believing in the natural creativity of all children (male-only language needs to stop here and now, because all of this applies equally to girls) is no giddy fantasy. It isn’t something I assume, nor was it forced upon me in kindergarten. It’s rather a belief I’ve arrived at after observing and interacting with youngsters for most of my adult life. But if we are to take Shop Class unconditionally, anyone who believes as I do must be a pipe-dreaming philistine. Fortunately, I have plenty of other documents to anchor my long-held “creativity thrives on freedom” credo. They may not have the hepcat currency of Crawford’s motorcycle manifesto, but they are just as relevant.

One is “The Radiant Child.” Another, which I recently revisited in connection with my job, is a Bill Moyers interview produced in the 1980s (not long after Ricard published his Basquiat article) featuring Maya Angelou. It speaks directly to the links between childhood, imagination, and far-flung exploration.

The interview is the opening installment in Moyers’ celebrated Creativity series. In it, he accompanies Angelou on a return to her home town of Stamps, Arkansas, where they walk, almost literally, among the poignant edifices of her memory. She describes the racial boundaries that made her an angry child, the chain of violence that made her a silent one, and the first brushes with literature that made her recognize what she truly was: an artist. Perhaps the most moving scene is one in which she receives a priceless gift: a long-lost notebook of her youthful sketches and writings. In her arms again, the book seems to be fate’s secret reason for bringing her home.

We are allowed a glimpse of its treasures. Clearly, they have little to do with “competence” or “submission” to discipline. They are early sparks in Angelou’s fiery trajectory across a lifescape of artistic challenges—and as vital as those challenges are to any developing creator, I don’t think their purpose is to weed out the undeserving and the talentless or to tamp down blissfull naivete. I think they exist to guide the spirit that we find even in the most primitive scratchings, splashings, and doodles of every beginning human; the spirit which will lead to greater and greater sophistication of expression if it is allowed to do so.

Yes, all children are radiant. As Moyers asserts in his closing: “It is not a scientifically certifiable fact that each child born into the world comes with the potential to create. It’s rather a statement of faith. But I can’t imagine any declaration more important for our society to make.”

His words were true then and are true today.

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